If you want your kids to be kind to others, you have to start with kindness at home. How do we do that? I’ve been thinking about this a lot.
Why we need to prioritize kindness instruction
Every morning at breakfast, I ask my three-year-old boys how they want their toast. They tell me if they want a whole piece or whether they’d like to cut their toast into halves, quarters, or eighths. If they want it cut, they’ll also let me know whether they want triangles or rectangles.
Why do we hold this daily routine at the morning table? Surely, it wastes a lot of time…
As a former special education teacher, I know half the mathematical battle for so many kids is not feeling comfortable with the language of math. So, I intentionally use mathematical language throughout the day.
I’ve come to the conclusion that the same is true for kindness. We need to bring a discussion of kindness into the everyday moments. The reason why so many middle schoolers don’t know their parents value kindness is because we’re failing to make kindness awareness a daily part of our routine.
Here are a few practical ways of doing this.
1. Stretch your kids’ empathy muscles with “what if” scenarios
Last week, I made the point that kids need more imaginative play to develop their empathy muscles. As a whole, that post suggests parents get out of the way, let their kids be bored, so that their kids start playing more imaginatively.
I hold to that, but this week I’m talking about a way you can more actively be involved in using imagination to stretch empathy muscles. As I made the decision I needed to get more intentional about bringing kindness into my kids’ everyday conversation, this is where I started. I began to craft “what if” scenarios for my kids and ask them what they’d do.
This is an extremely easy place to start if you want to make kindness thinking an intentional part of your family’s routine.
Simply imagine a scenario in which someone needs an empathetic response. The scenarios can be fun or serious. Then ask them in the car, while getting dressed, at the dinner table, or wherever.
Here are a few of mine:
- What would you do if you met a lost alien here on Planet Earth?
- What would you do if you had three strawberries, but your brother had only one? (yay, math and kindness in one!)
- What would you do if everyone was making fun of the new kid in your class?
- What would you do if your brother lied because he was afraid of getting in trouble?
- What would you do if your friend was coming over for lunch, and you knew he hated your favorite food? What would you ask me to make?
- What would you do if you saw a little bird with a broken wing outside?
- What would you do if you met Chicken Little running around screaming that the sky is falling?
- Who would you pick if a fairy said you could give a million dollars to one person in the world (not yourself)?
Imaginary scenarios make great diagnostic testing for empathy
Let me warn you, if your kids haven’t stretched their empathy muscles much, you might not love their answers. That’s okay–you’re getting a realistic picture of where they’re at.
The first time I did this, it was during one-on-one time with each of my twin three-year-old boys. I had a chance to try with my more empathetic child first. I thought I’d aim for a totally believable scenario that my boys could relate to.
“What would you do if you saw another little boy crying on the playground?”
He paused for a second and then said, “I’d kiss him!”
I thought his answer wasn’t too bad. Maybe lacking a chance for the hypothetical boy to give consent, but I was feeling pretty good as a parent. As a three-year-old, my son could envision giving comfort in the way he knew he’d like to receive comfort. I was definitely succeeding as a mom.
Then I asked my #2 Little Man.
“What would you if you saw another little boy crying on the playground?”
He began to squirm and started to avoid my eyes.
“Ummmm… I, umm… I’d do something.”
“What would you do, baby? How would you help?” ← That was me even leading him toward the idea of helping.
“I’d hit him.”
And there went all my pride at how well I’d been training my boys toward kindness.
The truth is, I hadn’t been training them. Like most parents, I figured if I was generally kind, my kids would pick up kindness.
That’s bad logic.
Reading to kids before bed certainly sets a child up to be a great reader eventually. But, it would be silly of me to assume that because I read to my children, they’d never need any phonics instruction. The same is true of kindness, most kids need both role modeling and explicit instruction.
Be gentle in how you teach with “what if” scenarios
You don’t want your kids to answer just to please you. You want them to think through their ideal responses and to stretch those empathy muscles.
That means you don’t want to chastise them for “wrong” answers.
For example, when my son wanted to hit the hypothetical crying boy, I didn’t immediately correct him. I simply asked him, “Hmm, do you think hitting him would make him feel better?”
My son knew it wouldn’t. When he shook his head, I offered him empathy first.
You see, the truth is my #2 Little Man feels all things deeply–both happiness and pain. And, for whatever reason, he hasn’t yet developed the skills to handle other people’s feelings. It’s not that he has no empathy; it’s more like empathy completely unravels him. We can’t even watch Daniel Tiger, because seeing Daniel Tiger mad or sad results in a sobbing little guy who just doesn’t rebound quickly.
So, I asked him, “You don’t like it when other people cry, do you?”
He shook his head.
“Is there something else you could do that wouldn’t hurt the child?”
For now, our “what if” scenarios have revolved around doing no harm. Maybe he can’t yet offer comfort to another crying child, but he can walk away (not hitting) and come tell an adult (giving someone else the chance to comfort the child). We’ve also gone over what kind of comfort he would like if he were the little boy crying on the playground (a kiss–just like his brother).
The good news: he’s been a little more prosocial around peers since we started doing this. He has made a new friend, and he hasn’t hurt anyone. That’s huge!
Remember, it’s often baby steps as our kids learn kindness. There are all different types of kids with different strengths and weaknesses. We can only start where they’re at. Make sure when teaching kindness, you demonstrate kindness first. Make it fun. Make it silly. Laugh with them.
“What would you do if you saw a giant meatball about to roll onto your brother?!”
2. Point out every pseudo-kind act you can
Become hypervigilant at spotting kindness–especially in your children that seem to struggle with kindness and empathy. You want them to develop an identity of kindness, so make them proud of the moments when they are kind–or have a vague appearance of kindness.
I’ve learned a lot from an organization called Connected Families. They’ve developed the ABC’s of Affirmation. It is a framework for pointing out positive behavior.
- Action – Name the specific action. “Hey, you just gave your little sister her toy!”
- Benefit – How did that benefit somebody? “That made her feel loved!” or “Now she won’t be bored while we eat!”
- Character – What is the character the child is developing? “That was so thoughtful of you. You were thinking of your little sister.”
Don’t just rattle off meaningless compliments
Telling your child how kind he or she is all the time won’t work. While we do want our kids to develop an internal identity around being kind people, meaningless compliments won’t work.
(Seriously, there’s a lot of research on the negative impact of meaningless praise.)
Let’s consider the example of the child that handed his little sister a toy. We don’t know his intent, so what happens if we just say, “You’re such a kind boy”?
Well… maybe he gave the toy to his sister, because he didn’t know where to put it. He just wanted to put it down.
Or maybe he gave the toy to his sister because he was curious what she would do with it.
Those weren’t bad intents, but they weren’t kind intents. If we immediately jump to telling him he’s kind, he may give toys to his sister more often in order to get the same praise. But, he can’t generalize the lesson to a broader context, because he hasn’t really figured out what about giving a toy was kind.
He doesn’t know how to be kind next time in any different scenario.
Even worse, he may begin to think he’s simply a kind boy already and feel less need to act kindly.
When we use the ABC method, we’re giving him the knowledge and language to recognize what kindness is. We’re building an identity of kindness, while tying kindness to actions that benefit others.
Instead of just thinking, “I’m a really kind boy,” he has a different mental framework: “I’m a kind boy, because I do kind things that help people.”
What if they didn’t really mean to be kind?
Okay, I confess: I’m intentionally wrong about their intent often. If I see my kids act in a way that could have been done with a kind intent, I point it out as if they’d meant to be kind.
- First, I want them to see how their actions affect and benefit others.
- Second, I want them to develop an identity of kindness.
- Third, I want kindness to be on their mind all the time.
- Fourth, and this is important: I want them to think that they’d intended to be kind all along.
This will make some of you uncomfortable, I realize. It sounds a little like deceiving my kids, but I don’t see it that way.
The truth is I misread my kids’ intentions all day long. I chastise them for the wrong stuff repeatedly. I forget to be empathetic of their views approximately a hundred times per day.
This isn’t me being a bad parent. This is me being a parent.
We assume the worst intentions in our kids a lot.
Parenting is hard, and we find ourselves needing to correct faster than we can do it well. We see one child endanger another, and we swoop in swiftly. Because we have to.
But we’re not the wisest in those moments, and we so often assume the worst.
Sooo… In a moment where my child does something even vaguely nice, I’m intentionally choosing to assume the best intentions.
How’s it going in the great experiment of my household?
A few days ago, it was a bit chilly outside (yes, it gets chilly in the tropics). My #2 Little Man came up to me while I was nursing my #3 Little Man and covered my toes with a blanket.
I wasn’t really paying attention, but he asked me, “You know why I gave you that blanket, Mama?”
“Because it makes you warm and cozy, and I’m a kind and sweet boy.”
I gave him a hug and a kiss on the forehead and affirmed that, “Yes, you are.”
He gave me the ABC’s of his action and was able to point out a kind intent. That means he’s actively looking for opportunities to be kind! I think that’s a success.
3. Ask kindness questions.
If you have school-age kids, you probably ask if they’ve gotten their homework done or how they did on the spelling test. For some reason, we think these are normal questions, but we forget to ask questions that help our kids develop kindness.
Here are great questions to start conversations about kindness:
- Were you kind to anybody today?
- Did you share any of your lunch?
- Did you notice anyone playing alone at recess?
- Is anyone going through a hard time in your class?
- Is there anybody getting teased in class?
- Did you play with anybody new today?
- Have you shown kindness to the bully in your class? ← Use a name, not “bully” here.
Most importantly, I think we want to ask how to love the child that our kids least like.
I still remember in preschool when my mom was writing out the invitations to my birthday party, she asked me if I wanted to invite My Worst Enemy. This kid was kind of a bully and had brought me to tears numerous times.
I wasn’t inviting the entire class to my birthday party either. My family preferred smaller events, so there was no reason to invite someone who wasn’t my friend.
But my mom told me, she wondered what would happen if I tried being extra kind to My Worst Enemy.
I agreed, and My Worst Enemy came to my birthday party. And, because we were four, from then on, he went around bragging about how I had invited him to my birthday party. In any social squabble, he was the first to defend me. He went from My Worst Enemy to a great friend.
It won’t always work out that easily, but it was a lesson I never forgot. Here I am talking about it twenty-eight years later.
When I learned about loving your enemy in church later, I had a real-world reference point to make sense of it.
Talk to your kids about loving the bullies in their lives. Radical love transforms people.
4. Think kindness outloud.
You do nice things for people all the time. If you don’t, I bet you do. You’re a parent, and I bet you do kind things for your kids and those in your family every single day.
One of the best ways to teach anything is to think out loud. As a special education teacher, this was my #1 most effective means of teaching reading comprehension. I had to stop and figure out what it is I think while reading, and then narrate it out.
You can do this with kindness. Just narrate the ABC’s as you go about your day taking care of your family:
- Hey, buddy, I think I’m going to cook dinner now. [ACTION]
- When I cook a healthy dinner, everyone gets the nutrition they need, and you can grow big and strong. [BENEFIT]
- I know you’d rather I play with you, but cooking dinner is my way of caring for my family. [CHARACTER].
Watch the language of kindness blossom in your home
The change starts with you becoming intentional to make kindness a part of your daily conversation, but soon your kids will carry the baton. Kindness truly is a language. The more you talk it, the more fluent your kids will be in it.
It’s only been a few months since I started to become intentional about this, and we’ve got tons to learn still.
I’ve started hearing my boys make comments like, “I think ____ was feeling sad, so I went and held her hand.”
Or asking me how so-and-so might be feeling, and could we help?
They’re becoming aware of the feelings of others and the role they can play in that. That’s kindness. It’s one hundred percent worth the effort.